An Interview with Sarah Ruhl

Dramaturg Walter Bilderback discusses In the Next Room, or the vibrator play with playwright Sarah Ruhl.

Walter Bilderback: The first time we spoke, when the Wilma produced The Clean House, you mentioned you were working on “a play about the history of the vibrator.” Here it is now: In the Next Room; or, The Vibrator Play. 

Let’s start with the obvious question: how did you decide to write a play about the history of the vibrator?

Sarah Ruhl: I was given a book by a friend called The Technology of Orgasm and was fascinated to learn that doctors used to treat hysterical women with vibrators, and before the invention, manually. I thought there might be a play in it.

WB: When did you decide to set the play in a single room? And why in “a prosperous spa town outside of New York City, perhaps Saratoga Springs”?

SR: I like to set myself formal challenges when I’m writing and wanted to write this particular one with the challenge of having simultaneous and continuous action in two rooms. Saratoga Springs—I learned that vibrators were part of the healing treatment there, particularly hydraulic vibrators—the salubrious effects of “the waters” sometimes meant vibrators. I also learned that it had a thriving African American community after the war. I was teaching for the SITI company up in Saratoga and loved the history of the place.

WB: The first time I talked about the play with your friend and former teacher, Paula Vogel, part of her excitement was because she felt this was your “most Chekhovian play.” Since then, you’ve done your own translation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Were you consciously thinking of Chekhov when you were writing the play?

SR: Yes—I was thinking of Chekhov and Ibsen and the notion of the 19th century interior; both the interiors of rooms and the interior of personhood and femininity.

WB: It’s an interesting comment on where we are as a society that the play’s subtitle can still draw embarrassed giggles from people. The giggles aren’t necessarily gender-specific, bu I wonder if this is connected to Maine’s observation in The Technology of Orgasm about the difference in response between men and women to a 19th century illustration of a “pelvic douche” that she includes in the book.

SR: Yes!

WB: It’s important to mention that your treatment of this technology and the patients in the play isn’t prurient. In fact, it seems to me that the play moves far beyond vibrators to broader questions of how people are connected, tenderness, the nature of love, . . . Can you talk about that?

SR: Ultimately the play is about intimacy. And I think in the age we live in, raw emotional intimacy is far more radical than physical intimacy or selling sex, which we see on every block. We see radical emotional intimacy far less frequently.

WB: In re-reading the play and thinking about the production, it seems to me that Dr. Givings is presented much more sympathetically than technologically-minded doctors usually are in stories like this, going back as far as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Why did you make that decision?

SR: I felt that the doctors in question were truly trying to help their patients. And making women orgasm was probably a huge help, in its way. They didn’t see it as a sexual treatment, they saw it as a medical treatment. So it would have seemed presumptuous to make the doctor prurient based on our contemporary knowledge of what they were doing. I also think it’s odd not to be sympathetic to one’s own characters. If you don’t love them at least a little, why spend up to ten years with them?

WB: I know you’ve got a new play opening in Chicago that’s also sort of a new departure for you. Could you talk about that and other projects?

SR: I’m doing a play called Stage Kiss, which is essentially about the phenomenon of actors kissing on stage. I think it’s so wonderful and so weird, to kiss in front of people for a job.

WB: You’ve also been doing a little work involving music. I’ve heard that you and Toby Twining have done some work on expanding the music he wrote for the Wilma’s production and possibly turning Eurydice an opera. I also read in the New Yorker that you worked with Elvis Costello on a project, I guess, has fallen through.

SR: Oh yes, I love Elvis so much and was sad when the zeitgeist was overpopulated with musicals about Memphis. I would love to work with him on another project. And Toby and I have been slowly thinking about expanding Eurydice.

WB: You’re now a mother as well: how challenging is it to try to balance a writing career and motherhood these days? Do you see the world in any way differently since becoming a mother?

SR: Challenging! Challenging to get out of the house! It is a battle every day just to leave the house. Virginia Woolf had it right with A Room of One’s Own.

WB: Blanka Zizka’s production of In the Next Room will feature an entirely new way of using the Wilma’s theater space, which is intended as a way of re-inforcing the intimacy of your play. How do you feel about inspiring such an undertaking?

SR: I think Blanka is brilliant and I love how she also sets herself formal challenges in order to experiment theatrically. I remember at the first reading of The Vibrator Play she turned to me and gave me the most wonderful naughty smile when she heard the stage direction about the rooms suddenly dissolving into a winter garden. I think Blanka and I both love what seems theatrically impossible. I can’t wait to see what she does with this.

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